Mickey Dennis was a standout on the 1997 Hot Springs Bison basketball team and would go on to play professionally for many years in Denmark. (Photo courtesy 1996 Bison Yearbook)
By Brett Nachtigall
HOT SPRINGS – As the Hot Springs Bison boys’ basketball team attempts to make history this week by being the first team from the community to win a State High School Basketball Championship, its interesting to look back at the history of Bison Basketball, especially at arguably the school’s previous best two seasons overall – 1945 and 1997.
Hot Springs’ 1945 team was coached by Fay Smith and was the last Bison boys’ basketball team to qualify for a state tournament. The 1997 team, led by future professional basketball player Mickey Dennis, had what it took to make it to state, but fell short by a score of 34-32 following a last second basket by Douglas in the Region Championship game.
According to accounts of the 1945 season by the Hot Springs Star, found in the Hot Springs Public Library, the boys’ basketball team that year won the District 31 title by defeating the Custer Wildcats at home by a score of 32-21. Other teams competing for the district crown that year were the Edgemont Moguls and Provo Rattlers, who faced each other in the consolation final, where the Rattlers eked out a 24-23 win.
Led by Bill Sweeney with 15 points – along with other players including Captain Rudy Krein, Harlan Krutsch, Carl Andre, Jim Winters, Don Pierce, Neal Allen, Don Lewis, Don Eibert and George Burg – Hot Springs’ win over Custer in districts propelled them into the Regional Tournament at Philip.
At Regions, the Bison first easily defeated Murdo by a score of 52-30, but then had a very close game versus Spearfish in the championship, which Hot Springs ultimately won by a score of 39-38.
The Star’s report of the Spearfish game said it was “nip and tuck from the beginning” with the two teams exchanging leads throughout. It was also “rough game, in which 38 fouls were called.”
Sweeney scored a total of 33 points for the Bison in the two region games, followed by teammate with Krein with a total of 28.
The region win then sent Hot Springs to their first state tournament since 1930, when there was a unique situation in which there were two state tournaments – the regular tournament for all of the state’s regional champions, and then a “State B Tournament” for all of the region runners-up. Hot Springs reached the consolation title game of that “B” tournament and defeated Delmont by a score of 34-15.
According to the South Dakota High School Activities Association website, Hot Springs was also in the 1916 and 1917 state tournaments.
In 1917, according to Jason Gross with the Black Hills Pioneer in Spearfish, the state tournament field at that time consisted of 28 teams, of which Hot Springs was one. Huron would go on to edge Aberdeen by a score of 23-22 in the title game.
For the 1945 State “B” Tournament, the Hot Springs Bison traveled to Mitchell where they would defeat Leola 32-25 in the first round, but lost to eventual state champion Madison by a score of 42-30 in the semi-final game.
“Principal Glenn Frary accompanied the team,” the Star reported. “The high school band and several hundred students and townspeople gave the team a rousing send-off at the bus depot.”
Other teams in the “B” tournament that year included Chester, Mt. Vernon, Platte, Miller and Webster, which is who Madison who go on to beat for the state title by a score of 30-28.
Sweeney, who played forward and was also reported in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader to be a “star pole vaulter,” led the Bison with 11 points versus Spearfish and 6 versus Leola. Teammate Harlan Krutsch, a center, scored 8 versus Spearfish and 9 versus Leola, while guard Jim Winter came off the bench to scored 8 versus Leola. Fellow guard Carl Andre scored 7 versus Madison and 3 versus Leola.
Andre, who was one of the seniors on the Hot Springs team, was a three-sport athlete for the Bison from 1942-45, and was given the nickname “Teenie” by his older sister when he was born.
Hot Springs resident Dave Batchelor, who graduated from Hot Springs High School in 1958, was only five-years-old when the 1945 team made it to the state tournament. He however got to know “Teenie” much more as a coach at HSHS, when Andre came back to Hot Springs and served as the school’s track head coach, as well as an assistant for the football and basketball team.
“He was built like the proverbial brick sh**house,” Batchelor laughed, when recently asked about his memories of his former coach.
After his playing days for the Bison, and prior to coming back to Hot Springs to coach at his alma mater, Andre was the starting quarterback of the University of Wyoming football team.
“As a coach here in Hot Springs, he was a real mentor and role model for several of us who, for various reasons, had parents who were not much available for outdoor activities,” Batchelor said. “So, every Saturday after the Friday football or basketball game, he would take four or five of us hunting. During those excursions, we learned a lot about life and how to conduct ourselves as adults. He remained a close friend to all of us throughout our lives.”
Batchelor said Coach Andre died in 2011 after a very long career as an educator in Wyoming.
The 1997 team likely represented the most promising group of Bison boys to make it to the state tournament since 1945.
The team was coached by Craig Bloom and led on the floor by All Stater Mickey Dennis, who would go on to play Division I college basketball at James Madison University, and eventually professional basketball overseas in Denmark where was voted a six-time All Star in the league from 2007 to 2014. Other standouts on the 1997 Hot Springs team included Steve Niemann, Tim Strauser, John Hordorf, Charles Russell and 6-foot, 9-inch center Andrew Scherer.
Dennis, who still resides in Denmark, was contacted last week through Facebook and asked to share some of his memories from that season, which however ended in a disappointing loss to Douglas in the Region Championship game.
“The team we had, first and foremost, was just a great group of guys,” said Dennis. “Most of us hung out on and off the court. We really got along. We had great balance with mostly seniors and juniors. We had size, speed and athleticism. We had shooters on the guard spots but they also could put it on the floor. We had a great young coach that we really believed in and could relate to. Coach Bloom gave us that extra wind in our sails.”
In addition to its physical makeup of personnel, that year’s team had many other parallels to this year’s group of Bison boys.
Their regular season record was 19-3, with most games being blowout wins, Dennis recalled.
“We beat everyone pretty easily, except for Custer it was always a war with them,” Dennis said. “They had some great teams back then. I can also remember beating Chadron, which nobody in the past had really beaten them before. That was a nice win.”
In similar fashion, this year’s Bison finished with a 17-3 regular season record before winning three more in the post-season to enter this week’s state tournament with a 20-3 record overall. Their first game of the year was a 63-34 victory over Chadron – one of first wins over the Cardinals in recent history. Hot Springs’ games this year versus Custer were both victories, by scores of 55-45 and 60-53, but neither came easily as the Bison found themselves coming from behind in both.
Entering the post-season, Hot Springs was considered the favorite to advance to the state tournament, as they were to face the Douglas Patriots in the region final – a team they had beaten twice before in the regular season by more than 25 points each time.
In that Region Championship game, Dennis said they came in excited and ready to play.
“We felt confident,” Dennis said. “Then after the tip off, I saw there tactic. Stall ball, they held the ball and there was no shot clock then in South Dakota. It was very smart by them. They had a veteran coach.”
“They had five guys spread out and just stalled the game. We ended up losing on a last second shot. Didn’t make State. It was a tough blow. If we played them 10 times we beat them 9 out of 10. But that’s basketball.”
When asked to share some thoughts with this year’s group of Bison boys basketball players, Dennis said, “Enjoy ever minute and always be in the moment.”
“You look back at this moment for years to come,” he shared. “Play for each other, play for your school and play for your city. Regardless of what happens at state we are proud of you guys.”